This past week, rabbis across the country received a request from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism to sign a public rabbinic letter to Congress that urged our Representatives and Senators not to cut any foreign aid to Israel as part of the FY2012 budget. The request was co-signed by the rabbinical leaders of four major American Jewish denominations.
As rabbis who received these appeals for our endorsement, we would like to voice our respectful but strong disagreement to the letter. We take particular issue with the statement:
As Jews we are committed to the vision of the Prophets and Jewish sages who considered the pursuit of peace a religious obligation. Foreign Aid to Israel is an essential way that we can fulfill our obligation to “seek peace and pursue it”
We certainly agree that the pursuit of peace is our primary religious obligation. Our tradition emphasizes that we should not only seek peace but pursue it actively. However we cannot affirm that three billion dollars of annual and unconditional aid – mainly in the form of military aid – in any way fulfills the religious obligation of pursuing peace.
This aid provides Israel with military hardware that it uses to maintain its Occupation and to expand settlements on Palestinian land. It provides American bulldozers that demolish Palestinian homes. It provides tear gas that is regularly shot by the IDF at nonviolent Palestinian protesters. It also provided the Apache helicopters that dropped tons of bombs on civilian populations in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, as well as the white phosphorus that Israel dropped on Gazan civilians, causing grievous burns to their bodies – including the bodies of children.
In light of Israel’s past and continuing military actions, how can we possibly affirm that our continued unconditional aid fulfills the sacred obligation of pursuing peace?
We also take exception to this assertion:
U.S. foreign aid reaffirms our commitment to a democratic ally in the Middle East and gives Israel the military edge to maintain its security and the economic stability to pursue peace.
In fact our ally, the Netanyahu administration, has even rebuffed mild pressure from the US government to comply with the longstanding US position against new settlements in the West Bank. If we believe that any peaceful settlement requires the end of the Occupation and Israel’s settlement policy, how will massive and unconditional foreign aid – and the support of hundreds of rabbis for this aid – promote a negotiated peaceful settlement of the conflict?
An Israeli government that continues to settle occupied territory with impunity will not change its policy as long as it is guaranteed three billion dollars a year. With every other ally, our government pursues a time-honored diplomatic policy that uses “sticks” as well as “carrots.” We believe the cause of peace would be better served by conditioning support to Israel on its adherence to American and Jewish values of equality and justice.
We are also mindful that the Arab world itself feels under assault by the US when it witnesses Palestinians regularly assaulted with American-made weapons. With the vast and important changes currently underway in the Middle East, we are deeply troubled by the message that this policy sends to Arab citizens who themselves are struggling for freedom and justice.
We know that many of our colleagues who have signed this statement have taken courageous public stands condemning Israel’s human rights abuses in the past. We also know it is enormously challenging to publicly take exception to our country’s aid policy to Israel. Nonetheless, we respectfully urge our our colleagues to consider the deeper implications represented by their support of this letter.
Unconditional aid to Israel may ensure Israel’s continued military dominance, but will it truly fulfill our religious obligation to pursue peace?
We all got painted into a corner on the issue of settlements, unfortunately, and where we should have concentrated was on territories and the borders of a future Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution.
It’s bewildering to me that the issue of settlements can somehow considered to be a pesky distraction to the peace process. How can talks on “territories and borders” proceed with anything resembling good faith if one side settles these disputed areas with impunity and the “honest broker” to the proceedings refuses to rein it in? How can we be expected to take such a process seriously?
We already know that one of the main reasons for Oslo’s failure was the inability to deal with the settlement issue directly. As a result, Israel took that as an opportunity to significantly expand its settlement regime during the course of the “peace process.” This has brought us to where we are today: in the wake of Oslo more than 500,000 settlers now live throughout the West Bank in settlements and small cities, with special Israeli-only highways that effectively cut Palestinian territories into individual cantons separated by military checkpoints.
Have we learned nothing from past experience? Here’s lesson #1: the settlements are not a side issue. The Israel’s settlement of the West Bank and East Jerusalem are – and have always been – a central obstacle to the peace process. Until it is made to cease and desist, I can’t see how the latest round of talks can be considered anything but a charade.
Ashley has been living in and reporting from Gaza for the past several months and her blog Dispatches from Gaza offers invaluable, in-depth perspectives of life under the blockade. Her articles have appeared in such publications as Jerusalem Post, Jerusalem Post Magazine, Global Post, Huffington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, and Ha’aretz.
Two upcoming movies I’m guessing the Jewish community will be discussing this summer: “Holy Rollers” (above), based on an apparently true story about Hasidic drug runners; and “The Infidel” (below), a wacky comedy about a British Muslim man who discovers his birth parents were Jewish.
My early reviews: the latter movie looks like a hash of the stupidest stereotypes of Muslims and Jews (tho I’ll admit that the final line in the trailer made me laugh out loud).
Re “Holy Rollers:” the peyos in “The Chosen” were more realistic…
For an in-depth eyewitness view of life in Gaza, you’ll do no better than, Dispatches from Gaza, a new blog just launched by a young journalist named Ashely Bates. Ashley has been in Israel/Palestine on on a three month internship for Ha’aretz and in late March she entered Gaza to write free-lance. She’s pitching her articles to various publications – in the meantime her extensive reportage is available via her blog.
Ashley is an amazing and accomplished young woman. Before getting her journalism degree from Northwestern University, she spent two years working for the Peace Corps in Jordan (where she became fluent in Arabic.) She currently works as the Program Director for the Chicago area co-existence program Hands of Peace, which is where I originally had the pleasure of meeting her.
Bookmark her blog. It offers the kind of on-the-ground reportage from Gaza that you will never, ever find in the mainstream media.
Click here for her latest post – a report on the first ever Gaza demonstration against child labor in the Gaza-Egypt smuggling tunnels.
The Idelsohn Society has released a breathtaking mix tape for Pesach, weaving together such musical liberation classics as The Kiddush (Richard Tucker), The Four Questions (Socalled), Passover Time on the Range (Moe Jaffe & Henry Tobias), Passover (Joy Division), On My Way To Canaan’s Land (The Carter Family), Freedom (Charles Mingus), I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, (Nina Simone), Where Can I Go? (Ray Charles), I’m Set Free (The Velvet Underground). Definitely something for everyone.
Can I just say that Washington Rep. Brian Baird is my personal hero? Watch this recent interview with RTAmerica which took place on the heels of his third trip to Gaza. Among other things, Baird calls for the US to break the blockade with Gaza, for US envoy George Mitchell to visit Gaza personally, and to consider withholding “certain kinds of aid” to Israel if it continues to settle the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Toward the end of the interview, he comments: “ignoring the plight of these good people is at our peril.”
On the international front, my personal bravery award goes to Ireland’s Foreign Minister Micheal Martin, who was recently the first European Union foreign minister to visit Gaza in over a year. He discussed his experiences yesterday in a powerful NY Times op-ed:
The tragedy of Gaza is that it is fast in danger of becoming a tolerated humanitarian crisis, a situation that most right-thinking people recognize as utterly unacceptable in this day and age but which is proving extremely difficult to remedy or ameliorate due to the blockade and the wider ramifications of efforts to try and achieve political progress in the Middle East.
One can imagine how hard it is not to give in to despair and hopelessness in such an environment. However, what was most impressive and heartening during my visit was the resilience and incredible dignity of ordinary people.
Interesting report on a recent panel discussion in Berkeley: will the Jewish deli survive the sustainable food movement?
One critical historical note courtesy of Karen Adelman and Peter Levitt (owners of a Bay Area deli that uses local, grass-fed meat, fish from sustainable farms and homemade celery soda) :
What American Jews think of as the authentic Jewish deli is an ossified construct based on post-World War II ideals of abundance that had little to do with how Jews ate in early 20th-century New York, let alone in the Old World.
That mile-high, fatty pastrami sandwich served at Katz’s or the Carnegie Deli? American, not Jewish, they say. Jewish cooking a century ago was all about thrift, seasonality and resourcefulness. Every part of the animal was used; portions were small; tomatoes were served in summer and beets in winter.
Today’s customers want everything on the menu year-round; if they don’t get it, Levitt said, “they complain it isn’t a ‘real’ Jewish deli.”
“‘Authentic’ is a moving target,” Adelman added, pointing out how Jewish cuisine in this country has developed with each new immigration wave. “What we’re arguing is, we’re more authentic. What’s authentic about mass-produced food and giant menus?”
An Israeli archaeologist said Monday that ancient fortifications recently excavated in Jerusalem date back 3,000 years to the time of King Solomon and support the biblical narrative about the era.
If the age of the wall is correct, the finding would be an indication that Jerusalem was home to a strong central government that had the resources and manpower needed to build massive fortifications in the 10th century B.C.
Just dig a little deeper, however, and the plot thickens even more. The researcher in question is Eilat Mazar (above), an old school Israeli archaeologist whose essential goal is to prove the historical veracity of the Bible. She’s made no bones (sorry) about this over the years. In a 2006 interview with Moment Magazine, she made this very telling comment:
One of the many things I learned from my grandfather was how to relate to the biblical text. Pore over it again and again, for it contains within it descriptions of genuine historical reality. I work with the Bible in one hand and the tools of excavation in the other. That’s what biblical archaeologists do. The Bible is the most important historical source and therefore deserves special attention.
The only problem with this is that the Bible is not a history book – it’s religious literature. There certainly may be kernels of historical fact to be found in these narratives, but I’d say it’s exceedingly problematic for an archaeologist to assume ipso facto the historical veracity of the Bible. Mazar’s comment that she works with a Bible in one hand and her tools in the other speaks volumes about her fundamental bias.
It’s also noteworthy that Mazar worked until recently for the Shalem Center, a partisan Israeli think-tank. Among other things, the Shalem Center believes archeology should support “the claim that the Bible can be viewed as a work whose historical narrative is in large part accurate, and (strengthen) the ancient connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel.”
It’s striking to compare Mazar’s approach to that of Israel Finkelstein, who comes from a new school of Israeli archaeologists who are aren’t driven by political ideology and are willing to go wherever their research takes them. In a nutshell, Finkelstein and his colleagues have argued convincingly that it’s impossible to say much of anything about ancient Israel until the 7th century BCE (around the time of the reign of King Josiah). This casts doubt on the historical veracity of the Biblical narrative from the period of the Patriarchs/Matriarchs through the reigns of David and Solomon. These claims have largely been accepted as normative by most mainstream archaeologists outside of Israel.
If you are interested the current thinking of Israeli researchers who are unfazed by nationalist bias, I highly recommend Finkelstein’s 2002 book (with Neal Asher Silberman), “The Bible Unearthed.” Also check out this 2001 piece from Salon, which explores the deeper socio-political implications of Israeli archeology.
If you’re feeling less than festive about the chronic loosening of public funds that enable the media extravaganzas we call the Olympic games, then here’s a song for you. Vancouver-based klezmer musician Geoff Berner has released an alternative Olympic anthem, entitled “Official Theme Song for the 2010 Vancouver/Whistler Olympic Games (The Dead Babies Were Worth It).”
Berner is a true klezmer purist, i.e., noisy, sloppy, drunken, and deliciously subversive. Here’s a sample lyric:
All you terrific foreign visitors -
We’re so glad that you’re here,
For our eight billion dollar, two week party
That we’re putting on this year.
Of course the credit goes to the government;
When they approved the eight billion bucks,
They cost cut out the office that
investigates childrens’ deaths.
The Dead, Dead Children Were Worth it,
The Dead, Dead Children Were Worth it,
The Dead, Dead Children Were Worth it,
The Vancouver/Whistler Olympic Games…
Click here to hear the song. Above to see a video of the Berner classic “Whiskey Rabbi.”
Elie Wiesel has long walked the tightrope between pious pronouncements of universal Jewish conscience and unabashed political advocacy. He’s been trying to have it both ways for years, but it seems to me that his balancing act is becoming more and more transparent.
Last week, as Wiesel unveiled an anti-Ahmadinejad ad with other Nobel Prize laureates, he blasted the Goldstone report, calling it “a crime against the Jewish people.” Leaving aside the issue that he took this opportunity once again to speak on behalf of the entire Jewish people, I’m still somewhat staggered that Wiesel, of all people, would use such charged Holocaust rhetoric in such a patently political manner. (I think Richard Silverstein at Tikun Olam hit it right on the head when he asked, “What was the last event in world history you can recall being a ‘crime against the Jewish people?’”)
As far as I’m concerned, Justice Richard Goldstone is precisely the kind of courageous Jewish moral hero that Wiesel himself purports to be: someone committed to advocating for universal human rights even when doing so might mean holding our own community painfully to account. As for Wiesel, I’m finding his words and actions increasingly craven. No one begrudges him his opinions – but it’s time he dropped the pretense that he’s somehow beyond the political fray.
Now that Brit Tzedek has merged with J Street, we’re witnessing the rapid growth of “J Street Locals” proliferating throughout more than 20 regions across the country. (I’m happy to be attending the launch of J Street Chicago at Emanuel Congregation this Thursday night and even happier to hear that a healthy turnout is expected.)
I’m dismayed, though, to learn that J Street Philadelphia‘s debut is receiving more than its share of ridiculous attacks from certain corners of the Philly Jewish community. I’ve just read that even Penn Hillel has come under fire for renting out its facility to this “anti-Israel” group.
A flap over Hillel of Greater Philadelphia’s decision to lease its space to J Street — for the official launch of its Philadelphia branch — is just one local manifestation of a debate that has roiled much of the national Jewish establishment since the advocacy organization was founded nearly two years ago…
Gary Erlbaum, who sits on the Jewish Community Relations Council’s Israel advocacy committee and is also a board member of the Jewish Publishing Group, has been outspoken in his opposition to J Street, and is upset about Hillel’s decision to host the group’s Feb. 4 event.
“What makes them pro-Israel? If the Palestinians had a lobby, it would be called J Street,” said Erlbaum. “The Hillel building is an inappropriate spot for a group that’s anti-Israel.”
Oh, for God’s sake. A group committed to supporting the two-state solution through a diplomatic means, while safeguarding Israel security and its future as a Jewish and democratic state, is somehow “anti-Israel?”
You know, sometimes when I’m feeling really, really optimistic, I dream about what it might feel like if the American Jewish community actually could tolerate the kind of vigorous and freewheeling debate that they enjoy in the actual Jewish state itself. (Now wouldn’t that be “pro-Israel?”)
Just learned that the great alt-Jewish band The Sway Machinery recently played at “Le Festival au Désert” – an amazing international music festival held annually in the Sahara desert near Timbuktu, Mali. Apparently, SM played before a largely Muslim audience and performed with several local African musicians as well.
Koudede was followed by Sway Machinery’s own set. They were strong and energetic. They brought the audience into their groove within seconds. While (band leader Jeremiah) Lockwood sang singing in Hebrew, the Muslim crowd respected the music and showed its appreciation by dancing along. Haira Arby joined the group for their final song and showed once again her mastery of music. She was immediately in the groove and brought her own authenticity to the number.
In an unprecedented act of intercultural exchange, underground rock cult favorites and iconoclastic champions of historic Jewish music traditions, The Sway Machinery, have been invited to perform at The Festival of the Desert in Esekane, Mali, in the depths of the Sahara Desert this January. The Sway Machinery will bring its unique vision of Jewish Spiritual Music traditions to the heart of Islamic Africa, performing for an audience of thousands!
While in Mali, The Sway Machinery will record a new album, featuring collaborations with stars of the Malian music world. A documentary film about this journey is also in the making!
“The Sway Machinery Pilgrimage, as they have entitled their Africa project, is a beautiful example for the world of the great role artists can play in building bridges of love and understanding between cultures. This project is of clear importance in establishing new and positive images of Jews and Muslims engaging with each other” (Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Chairman, Cordoba Initiative).
I wish I could find a clip from the set at the Festival. In the meantime, click above and check out their recent performance at the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival. (First one to recognize the Jewish liturgical lyrics gets the door prize…)
Brazil has set aside a day to honor Jewish immigrants to the country.
Brazilian Vice President Jose Alencar signed a measure setting March 18 as Jewish Immigration Day. The date coincides with the re-inauguration date in 2002 of the Brazilian synagogue Kahal Zur Israel, the oldest synagogue in the Americas.
“It was not easy to choose a date among many that represent the influence and the contribution of the Jewish community to the development of our country,” said Marcelo Itagiba, the Jewish congressman who had proposed the bill…
Brazil has some 120,000 Jews, the second largest Jewish population in Latin America after Argentina.